Stewardship Land: New Zealand’s To-Be-Filed Tray

NZ’s “to be filed” tray, for the past 27 years.
[Map adapted from PCE Report with permission.]

You can read what you will from the Minister of Conservation’s recent statements. For me, one of the important topics he’s referred to is Stewardship Land.

Why is this important? Because right now, roughly one third of all conservation land, about 10% of the whole of New Zealand, is in limbo.

Stewardship Land is the to be filed tray of conservation land. Much of it is land that was handed to DOC during its formation in 1987, without already being a National Park, Forest Park or Reserve. The rest was obtained afterwards. The intent was always for it to be assessed and either given an appropriate legal designation or perhaps disposed of. Some is definitely well suited for National Parks or Conservation Parks, or various types of Reserves, and is often already being used as if it is. Some might be best disposed of and put to other uses, but 27 years later it’s still waiting for something to be done with it. Nobody’s ever prioritised the research and paperwork for deciding what it should be.

Stewardship Land is loosely protected, but only loosely. For management, DOC is required only to manage it “so that its natural and historic resources are protected“. In practice, much Stewardship Land is still managed according to what’s informally known of its actual value, even if this value has never been formalised in law. DOC will coordinate pest control if needed and as resources permit, and also maintain recreational tracks and huts if appropriate.

The diminished legal status, however, means diminished protection. Even if some land’s conservation value is very high, whether for environmental reasons or recreation reasons, the lack of status restricts criteria on which DOC and the Minister can consider applications for concessions. This is because the land’s not on record as being protected for any specific reason. Furthermore, as long as certain criteria are met, Stewardship Land can be sold or traded for other land. The trading clause was designed with the specific intent of enabling minor adjustments of land boundaries, but this intent was never written in law. Significant controversial land trades, which have nothing to do with shoring up land boundaries, have already occurred.

Recently, the Snowdon Forest monorail project (finally denied) was mostly about Stewardship Land. Meridian Energy’s desire to dam and flood the Mokihinui River catchment (eventually abandoned) was largely about Stewardship Land. Bathurst Resources’ application to open-cast mine the Denniston Plateau (permission granted) was also about Stewardship Land. The trading of the Crystal Basin for a private land block on Banks Peninsula, to enable a private company to develop a ski-field, was about Stewardship Land.

In August 2013, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment produced a report on the issue of Stewardship Land, pressing for the government to hurry up and catalogue it sooner rather than later. It’s worthwhile reading. It summarises a detailed history of how Stewardship Land came to be where it is now, examines why that’s happened, and puts forward two recent case studies to demonstrate the problem of this land being in a “holding pen” and the increasingly urgent need to hurry up and fix it. It’s not just about protecting land which needs protecting. It’s about making the protection on land in the conservation estate directly related to its actual importance. With the status visible and protection clearly in place, it’s also to reduce the need for lengthy court battles which can take years, cause much stress on all sides, and burn millions of dollars.

In mid-June I attended Federated Mountain Clubs’ Annual Conference Open Day, where FMC launched its Forgotten Lands campaign. As part of the campaign, FMC identifies a collection of well known significant areas which still have no protection status besides Stewardship Land, but very probably should. Any of these examples might have high recreational values or high conservation values or a combination, but their ambiguous designation means their protection could be thrown into doubt overnight, irrespective of actual value, if alternative uses were proposed.

Forest & Bird have also launched an independent but parallel campaign. With an upcoming election, both organisations are aiming to make it a political issue.

The cautiously good news is that potential future Ministers of Conservation at all depths of the political cauldron have committed to prioritising the assessment of Stewardship Land. Nick Smith from National, Ruth Dyson from Labour and Eugenie Sage from the Greens, all attended the FMC open day. Following the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report (linked above), all agreed that the issue is important enough to actively pursue. After the election, there should be a serious effort to actually deal with this, so that most or all of this land will be given a clear and proper legal status.

No matter who governs, there will doubtless be glowing press releases about new parks and reserves are being created and new land being protected for future generations. The most significant differences will probably lie in the detail of what continues to be unprotected, or protected with certain compromising caveats. This might be fine and completely rational depending on details and what’s considered reasonable, or maybe not. There are plenty of politics still to come.

I won’t instruct anyone how to vote. It’s a personal decision, there are obviously also many other issues which need to be weighed up by any individual, and I think democracy works better when people think for themselves. Whatever you decide, though, I’d request everyone to please be aware of the issue for the upcoming election. In future, keep an eye open for any announcements or public consultations about nearby land that’s being considered for classification. No matter who you vote for, if anyone, or what you expect from them on this issue, please don’t be afraid to ensure that whoever’s in government knows what you think regardless. Then hold them to account. The future of much of our conservation estate is at stake.

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